Peter Arnett, combat journalist

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Perhaps to publicize and capitalize on Peter Arnett’s reporting for CNN in 1991, this fuzzy, screen-grab image from Iraq was chosen as the cover for his 1994 book. Photo copyright 1991 Cable News Network

 

“Live From the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World’s War Zones” by Peter Arnett (Simon & Schuster, 1994, $23)

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text. All rights reserved.

Journalist Peter Arnett may be best known to viewers as one of the “Boys of Baghdad,” noted for his ground-breaking live reporting on CNN at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War in Iraq in 1991.

But long before he spoke into a microphone and stood in front of a television camera, he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning print journalist, having covered for more than a decade that most controversial of conflicts, the Vietnam War.

In fact, he was one of the few reporters to have literally seen it all in Vietnam. He was there in 1962, at a point when American military and more covert advisers were working with the South Vietnamese army and government, before the massive buildup of American military men and machinery. And he was there at the end, in April 30, 1975, with the fall of Saigon to the communists.

In between, as an unflinching reporter for The Associated Press, he repeatedly risked his life to bring to readers around the world what was really happening on the ground and in the air, as the death and casualty tolls skyrocketed and more than 58,000 American troops came home in body bags and coffins.

His rule was simple: If he didn’t witness it himself, he didn’t write it. He, and other reporters such as David Halberstam, Malcolm Browne and Neil Sheehan, were unwilling to accept at face value what the military briefers were disseminating to the press, the more “rosy” picture of how the war was progressing. While the Johnson administration’s generals were talking about a “light at the end of the tunnel,” Arnett’s courageous reporting was telling a vastly different story.

Not surprisingly, this adversarial approach made him less than popular with high-ranking brass, and even some of his own colleagues.

Vietnam War supporter Joseph Alsop, a syndicated columnist who visited the country only briefly several times and was escorted by government toadies (according to Arnett) to the sights they wanted him to see, once said to Arnett at a dinner party at Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker’s Saigon residence: “You’re the fellow who makes up the quotes, aren’t you?”

Understandably, this angered Arnett, who was poised and ready to punch Alsop before Bunker intervened.

The section about Vietnam runs for more than 230 pages, and comprises more than half the book.  It is the most vividly written, as Arnett re-creates his many dangerous forays into the Vietnamese countryside, on foot, via helicopter, jeep and private car, to cover battles big and small, sometimes with other reporters and photographers. He frequently uses full paragraphs and quotes from actual stories he filed to the AP throughout this part of the text.

More than once he’s accused of being un-American in his coverage, a comment that evokes a ready retort: “I’m from New Zealand.”

Arnett was born in 1934 in a small community called Riverton, one of the first whaling settlements, at the southern end of New Zealand’s south island. He grew up being regaled with seafaring tales, especially about the arrival of the English ship Eliza in 1834, on which his adventurous great-great-grandfather, James Leader, set out from Sussex.

Leader married a Maori woman, and many decades later, Arnett would cite his mixed heritage as one facet that led to an unsettled adolescence. Getting thrown out of boarding school — for dating a girl — didn’t help either.

Upon returning home, he joined his brother, already on staff, working as a reporter at a local newspaper. Despite long hours and poor pay, the teenager had not only found his calling, but entree into a much wider world.

Working his way up from small papers, Arnett’s ambition and restlessness eventually landed him in Thailand, then Laos and a job as a stringer for the AP. His coverage of a military coup in Laos — he had to swim the Mekong River with his copy, $200 and passport wedged between his teeth to get to Thailand to file his story — finally snagged him the prize of a full-time job with the AP. He was 25 years old.

His analysis critical of the policies of Indonesian President Sukarno got Arnett thrown out of Jakarta, setting up his posting to Vietnam, where AP Saigon bureau chief Mal Browne’s rigorous journalistic standards and leadership, to say nothing of his indispensable 24-page booklet, “A Guide to News Coverage in Vietnam,” completed Arnett’s transition into a powerful writer and throw-anything-at-me professional.

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Arnett, on assignment, somewhere in Vietnam. When he arrived in Saigon in 1962, AP bureau chief Malcolm Browne gave him a list of 24 items Arnett would need in the field, among them an air mattress, canned food, a jackknife and pistol (optional). Arnett says he purchased all his gear on the Saigon black market. Photo copyright The Associated Press

After Vietnam, a change in management at AP’s New York headquarters and a hard-earned war-weariness drove Arnett to try journalism from a different angle. He joined the fledging Cable News Network in 1981, when Ted Turner’s Atlanta-based upstart was short on name-recognition reporting talent and funds. Or as Arnett puts it, “a runty communications organization with big ambitions and a small audience,” cable operations being in their infancy.

Within 10 years, CNN had come of age, helped in no small part by Arnett’s unparalleled reporting from Iraq, complemented by Bernard Shaw and John Holliman, the other “Boys of Baghdad.” At one point, Arnett was one of the few journalists left in the city being bombed by coalition forces, and the only one with a new-fangled satellite telephone that allowed him to continue to file stories. He also scored an exclusive 90-minute interview with Saddam Hussein.

His coverage drew a firestorm of criticism — he was called a “propaganda mouthpiece” and worse — but CNN stood by Arnett, as bosses had repeatedly done following his reporting from Vietnam.

The book ends in 1994, with Arnett interviewing the leaders of competing factions in a vigorous power struggle in Afghanistan, after the invading Soviets had abandoned what some refer to as their Vietnam.

The adrenaline-high years in Vietnam would continue to affect Arnett for decades to come. There was always one more war to cover, by his count, a total of 17 over 30 years, one more story to tell. (His career continued long after the book’s publication.)

As a freelance reporter in March 1997, Arnett was the first Westerner to interview Osama bin Laden. In 2003, during the second Gulf War, he gave an interview to state-run Iraqi TV, in which he said the America plan had failed. NBC and National Geographic, for whom he was working, fired him. He was immediately hired by Britain’s Daily Mirror. Other affiliations and opportunities would follow. He retired in 2007.

Today, Arnett, 81, lives in suburban Los Angeles, California.

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